Covid-19 lockdown offers glimpse of a low carbon future

By Phil Jones

With New Zealand forced to close up shop in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve carried out an initial assessment of the associated drop in carbon emissions. It suggests that the reduction is on par with what we’ll need to do on a permanent basis to meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement.

While this isn’t the way we want to achieve that goal, the Covid-19 experience does help us understand how we might reduce our emissions in the future.

Our analysis of the potential impact the lockdown is having on our emissions has revealed some useful insights, in particular where the biggest cuts are being made. We based our calculations on the latest data (2017) from the NZ Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventory and a general understanding of the impact Covid-19 is having on different sectors of the economy and society. It’s not a definitive study, it’s more of a ‘broad brush’ picture.

Under the Paris Agreement New Zealand has said that by 2030 it will have reduced gross emissions by 11% below 1990 levels. (Even that target is unlikely to help keep warming to below 2°C, let alone limiting it to 1.5°C as required by the Agreement.)

Due to the current lockdown, we estimate that New Zealand’s emissions are dropping at a rate that, over a year, could see them cut from 81 million tonnes down to 60 million tonnes – that’s a drop of about 25%. In other words, for each month of the Level 4 Alert our annual emissions could be expected to drop by just over 2%.

To put that into perspective, the last time our annual emissions totalled about 60 million tonnes was before 1990 – the key international reference year for national emission levels.

Over half of this drop relates to radically lower transport use, mainly our road vehicles. At this time, we’re fortunate that food production is a major part of our economy as it is largely unaffected by the lockdown. But this does mean that the significant emissions from our agriculture and food sector (over half our emissions) are unaffected. Fortunately, our trees still suck up the carbon dioxide, helping to offset over one third of our emissions

The key areas for emission cuts

Now, let’s take a look at some of our other key findings. We’ve extrapolated our currently reduced emission levels to estimate what those cuts could add up to over a year. As noted earlier, that’s a total annual cut in emissions of about 21 million tonnes.

Here’s where the biggest cuts are being made:

  • Road transport – down 10.8 million tonnes,
  • Domestic aviation – down 0.95 million tonnes
  • Steel production – down 1.6 million tonnes
  • Waste disposal sites (landfills) – down 1.8 million tonnes
  • Chemical production – down 0.8 million tonnes

We haven’t included emissions from departing international flights as they don’t need to be included in New Zealand’s figures. However, global emissions could be cut by about 3.5 million tonnes if there were no flights out of New Zealand for a year.

As you can see the biggest cuts in emissions are being made by road transport which, interestingly, is also the sector that has recorded the largest increase since 1990.

The dramatic cut in vehicle emissions – mainly from light vehicles like cars, vans and motorbikes but also some heavy vehicles like buses and trucks – helps illustrate how switching the New Zealand fleet to electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles is going to have a big impact in the future.

Emissions from industrial activity are estimated at about 50% of usual levels. While aluminium production at Tiwai Point continues, other high emitting activities like steel production have reduced to a maintenance level.

With much lower levels of shopping, commercial and construction activity, we’ll probably be generating far less waste, perhaps only 50% of normal levels, which would equate to reduced landfill emissions of about 1.8M tonnes. However, this may be offset by an increase in recycled materials being sent to landfill in regions to reduce the need to sort it by hand.

The role of small and medium sized businesses

Obviously, a harsh cut in our economic activity is not the path we want to follow. New Zealand needs a detailed plan to cut our emissions over the next decade and beyond. The Zero Carbon Act and the recently formed Climate Change Commission are an essential foundation but we need to back that up with urgent action. Until early March of this year our emissions were still tracking at near record levels.

Government and some key larger businesses will have a dominant role in shifting us onto a low carbon trajectory. But, at SBN we recognise the important role that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) also have to play. According to the latest government figures, prior to Covid-19, SMEs accounted for 97% of all New Zealand businesses.

In a few weeks’ time, as part of our Climate Action 20/25 initiative, we’ll be releasing a report about the need for SMEs to engage in climate action, or accelerate the initiatives they already have in place, once they’re back in business. We’ll also be providing them with tools and resources later in the year.

Right now, like many other businesses, we are doing things differently in response to the current lockdown which we’ll continue to do in the future. For example, the restrictions have shown us that our already limited business travel can be cut back further through more online meetings and turning some physical events, like workshops, into webinars.

To find out more about SBN’s Climate Action 20/25 project, or this preliminary analysis, please contact phil@sustainable.org.nz.